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Marc Randolph ’81, co-founder of the online steaming service Netflix, delivered the Commencement address to the Hamilton College Class of 2020.
More than 325 members of Hamilton’s 497-member Class of 2020 returned to College Hill on Saturday, June 4, for the Commencement celebration that would have happened two years ago, had the COVID pandemic not intervened.

The class that was honored virtually in 2020 enjoyed many traditions of a typical Senior Week and Commencement two years later, donning caps and gowns and walking across the stage in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House. Graduates came from as far away as Korea and Hong Kong to celebrate with their classmates.

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Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph ’81 gave the Commencement address, and other speakers included Kena Gilmour ’20, recipient of the James Soper Merrill Prize awarded to the member of the graduating class “who, in character and influence, has typified the highest ideals of the College,” as selected by the faculty, and AlMahdi Mahil ’20, who was selected as class speaker by his classmates.

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View videos of the complete baccalaureate and commencement ceremonies, as well as speeches by Marc Randolph ’81, Edvige Jean-François ’90, Kena Gilmour ’20, and AlMahdi Mahil ’20.

Randolph shared advice based on his own entrepreneurial success with the 2020 graduates, emphasizing that above all it’s important to “chill.”

“Whatever it is you want to do, you’ve got time,” Randolph advised. “Don’t worry if you don’t yet know what you want to do with your life. Don’t worry about your career following a straight line. I promise [that] the happiest, most successful people I know do what they do because they followed a passion, not because they had a plan. The best journeys rarely proceed linearly. Find something that strikes your interest. And don’t be afraid to start down a path just because you can’t see the end.”

Edvige Jean-François ’90
Edvige Jean-François ’90 receives an honorary degree from President David Wippman. Photo: Nancy L. Ford

Randolph received an honorary degree at Commencement, along with Edvige Jean-François ’90, an award-winning global journalist who in July will become the inaugural executive director of the Center for Studies on Africa and Its Diaspora at Georgia State University. Jean-François gave the baccalaureate address on Friday. 

In his remarks, Randolph told the 2020 graduates that, contrary to the popular opinion that “there are no bad ideas,” he believes “there are plenty of bad ideas … And I’ll tell you based on my four decades as an entrepreneur, there’s no such thing as a good idea. Every idea is flawed … and if you think you have a good idea? Well, that’s just because you haven’t yet figured out why it’s bad.”

But, Randolph added, that every amazing thing that’s changed the world – “whether it’s penicillin, the steam engine, sliced bread, TikTok – they all started out as a bad idea.

“When I told my wife the idea that eventually became Netflix? She said it was the stupidest idea she had ever heard,” he recalled. Randolph said many people are discouraged when what they think is a great idea gets shot down by friends, a boss, or parents. Too often, he said, for most people the idea ends there — but it doesn’t have to. He shared three steps for turning ideas into realities.   

“The first step is simple. You just need to start,” Randolph said. “Success is proportional to how many of those ideas you actually try,” Randolph said, “and the only way to do that is to stop thinking and start doing. You have to build something, test something, try something, make something. You’re going to learn more in 10 minutes of doing it than you will in 10 months of ‘thinking about it.’ The important thing is just to do it, not to do it perfectly.”

Randolph advised that if that attempted idea doesn’t work, you have to be willing to try something else. Because the second step toward making your dreams come true, he said, is to never fall in love with your ideas.

“Instead, you need to fall in love with a problem. Falling in love with an idea will break your heart,” he said. “But fall in love with a problem … it will never abandon you. And the more you get to know it, the richer, deeper, and more meaningful that relationship will become.”

Randolph said that when he was pitching dozens of ideas to his business partner Reed Hastings in 1997, “the common denominator was that these were all things begging to be done differently. They came from me seeing the world as an imperfect place and wanting to fix it. They were all simply interesting problems.”

His third piece of advice, Randolph said, is a little harder. “Besides others saying ‘that will never work,’ there will be another voice — an even more persuasive one — that you’re going to have to learn to ignore. And that’s your own. It’s OK. None of us want to be unsuccessful. … It’s scary to start down a path when you don’t know where it’s going to lead. So, you need to take the most powerful step of all: You need to believe.”

Randolph said the secret to his success is that he is an optimist. “Whether it was Netflix, or any of my seven startups, even when things were at their darkest and most uncertain, I always believed,” he said. He called optimism “a powerful force, because you’re going to hear versions of ‘that will never work’ hundreds of times in your life.”

Yet, he said, “That crazy idea that everyone says will never work … I’m living proof that sometimes it does.”

As he encouraged the Class of 2020 to “chill,” Randolph used his own life-out-of-college as an example, noting that he didn’t start working in tech until he was 32. “At Hamilton I was a geology major, with a 2.7 GPA. I failed one of my English lit courses and got two Ds in Economics: Micro and Macro.” After graduating, he worked in a ski shop in Memphis, managed a bar in Colorado, was the “worst realtor in the state of New York,” and was a gofer for the CEO of a sheet music company.  

“You and I are not that different,” he said. “Like you, I spent four years exploring big ideas, reading great books, taking amazing classes … I knew what it was like to be inspired by a professor, challenged by a peer. And like you, I know what it’s like to have that big idea that you hope you just might change the world.

“But I also know what it’s like when you get that first rejection letter. Or that dream job turns out to be not quite so dreamy. Or when you learn that three people sharing a one-bedroom fifth-floor walk-up isn’t quite as fun as you expected,” he continued. “And that’s the moment when that quiet voice wakes you in the middle of the night to whisper, ‘That Will Never Work,’ and that great idea? Poof. But remember: It’s impossible to know if it’s a good idea without trying it.”

Kena Gilmour ’20.

In his remarks, James Soper Merrill Prize recipient Kena Gilmour ’20 said that after learning he’d have the opportunity to speak at Commencement, “I had a lot of time to think. Almost too long – two years,” he said. “This graduation is not like any other, and in the time since we’ve left the Hill we have experienced … adversity and distress, many of us losing loved ones to COVID-19, white supremacist systems and policing, and a plethora of other conditions.”

“When I began my time here, I was in many ways consumed by the pressures of an elitist, heteropatriarchal, and capitalist culture. My initial months were spent reckoning with an idealized expectation of what this college would be like, and struggling to accept that no space is immune to the inequities that plague our society,” he said.

“Now that we’ve had time away from Hamilton, I have come to understand its brilliance as a catalyst. A force of change that facilitates growth and challenged us to either concretize or change our beliefs. This process was far from a linear progression, as there were innumerable times I was profoundly appreciative to be here, and quite a few occasions when I was angry, confused, and disappointed with my subscription to this institution and its ways of being,” Gilmour said. “Despite this dichotomy, over time, I was able to shed many of those initial internalizations and better understand myself and how I want to fit into the world. 

Gilmour credits the people — his fellow students, professors, coaches, and the other members of the campus — with his personal evolution. “This community has collectively faced incredible challenges–– yet endured. Many of us have not even seen each other since those early days of March 2020, but the camaraderie, solidarity, and love for one another has never wavered,” he said.

“I hope that today’s commencement stands twofold: first to celebrate the journey each of us has made up until this point, and secondly, to remind ourselves that our work is not yet done. When looking back upon this day, we will always be remembered as the first COVID-19 class, the students that graduated at the feet of George Floyd’s public assassination, and now, a class that celebrates our Commencement on the heels of a Supreme Court decision that threatens the bodily agency of all women and female-bodied folks. These incidents should not stain how we remember our time here, but instead should motivate and inform how we proceed,” Gilmour told his classmates.

AlMahdi Mahil ’20.

Class speaker AlMahdi Mahil ’20 confessed that he did not want to be at the Saturday commencement. “It has been two years since I was last on this campus, and I had accepted the fact that our graduation was reduced to a rolling credit on a screen,” he said. “I have moved on. And honestly, I thought it was a little sad that we would be coming back to put on caps and gowns to graduate after the Class of 2022. And every time I thought of all the positives of coming back — seeing people I haven’t seen in a while, saying hello to my former teachers, getting a little break from hectic city life — my mind always went back to that empty half of the glass.

“You see, the real reason I didn’t want to come was this speech. I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to people who have been out in the ‘real world’ for two years, paying bills. … People who have started new relationships, started new jobs, moved to new cities, and some have even found home in new countries. What kind of advice do you give these people that they haven’t heard before or are already aware of? And then it came to me this past week. This is Hamilton. We complain (in my case constantly) about everything from the weather to the lack of entertainment options, but at the end of the day, our love for our alma mater always brings us back,” he added.

Mahil offered his classmates one bit of advice, which he acknowledged they’ve probably heard before, but it’s worth repeating. “During my four years at Hamilton, I often heard complaints from students and teachers alike about how isolated life here felt. How things that happened here seemed detached from the realities of the outside world. How the people here seemed unencumbered by burdens or any real consequences that those in the ‘real world’ often faced. And this complaint made sense, as we are quite literally on top of a hill, five hours from the closest major metropolitan centers. And this detachment — this insulation — from the rest of the world meant that every time we set foot outside the vast parameters of this campus, we had to relearn the concept of accountability.

“In the ‘real world’ you are expected to partake in pursuits that are wholly your responsibility to see through: You are expected to pay bills, and if you don’t, there are consequences for that. You are expected to abide by laws that you may not have known existed, and there are consequences if you fail to obey those too. You are expected to understand and navigate a thousand different nuances. Hamilton, of course, purports to instill in its students a sense of responsibility — a sense of agency — but this is a lesson that no school can teach you. Fairly or unjustly, outside these grounds, people will expect you to take responsibility for all the things you do, and all things you represent.”

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